Nothing synthetic about phonics

 Here is another article about synthetic phonics in today’s TESS.

It is interesting to note that the impressive advances in decoding and spelling skills are not matched quite so dramatically with improvements in comprehension. It has long been a concern of mine that an overemphasis on phonic instruction is necessary but not sufficient to create readers. ( What do I mean ? This definition  may be excessive but true to my heart: a reader is one who lives to read rather than reads to live!)

Nothing synthetic about phonics by Elizabeth Buie
TESS reports that Sue Ellis, an expert in literacy at Strathclyde University, has published a report which highlights variations between the national 5-14 test results for P7 pupils involved in the phonics programme and the psychological test results used to proclaim its success. Her report, which appears in the December issue of the Journal for Early Childhood Literacy, notes the study’s findings: that, after seven years of following the synthetic phonics programme, pupils were three years and six months ahead of their chronological age in decoding words, one year and nine months ahead in spelling, and 3.5 months above the expected level for reading comprehension.

Computers blamed as reading standards slump

The Independent
The Independent reports that British children have plummeted in an international league table of reading skills. Middle-class parents have been blamed for failing to encourage a love of books over computer games. Primary-school children in England fell from third to 15th in the study of 45 countries, recording the third highest drop behind Romania and Morocco over the past five years. Scotland fell 12 places compared to 2001, slumping to 26th. Russia topped the league table, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore while South Africa came bottom.

The Scottish Governemt put a positive spin on the PIRLS report:

Report on reading literacy
The Scottish Government reports that Scotland’s reading literacy is still significantly above the international average according to The Progress In Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which is run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

However, the country’s ranking has slipped slightly since the previous report and presents an inherited challenge for the new Scottish Government according to Minister for Schools and Skills Maureen Watt. Ms Watt said that she was pleased to see that the study of nine and ten year-olds showed Scotland’s most able pupils ranked amongst the highest achievers in the international study.

UK children ‘reading too early’

UK children ‘reading too early‘
Children are too young to learn to read when they first start school in the UK, an academic claims. Pushing reception pupils too hard could put them off for life, especially boys, says Professor Lilian Katz.  Dr Katz, a professor of education at the University of Illinois in the USA, thinks policy makers are pushing children too hard too early. Most youngsters in the UK start learning to read and write in reception when they start primary school – often before their fifth birthday. In Scandinavian countries formal teaching begins much later, usually when children are six or seven

Literacy programme ‘wiping out’ a lot of illiteracy and dyslexia

Going, going, gone…A literacy programme is ‘wiping out’ a lot of illiteracy and dyslexia, according to its architect

The educational psychologist behind the West Dunbartonshire 10-year literacy programme has made the dramatic claim that it is “wiping out” a lot of dyslexia, as well as eradicating illiteracy. But the council is taking a more cautious view.  Dr MacKay believes only a very small number of cases can accurately be described as dyslexia. He says some children are labelled dyslexic around the ages of seven or eight the stage when assessments for dyslexia are carried out because that is when it becomes clear that a child is having problems responding to reading instruction.

Council ‘has tackled illiteracy’

Council ‘has tackled illiteracy’
A council claims to have virtually wiped out illiteracy in its schools. Research charting the 10-year programme in West Dunbartonshire indicates only a handful of children now leave school unable to read properly. By the time they left the council’s seven secondaries to make their way in the world, 20% were still functionally illiterate – defined as a reading age below that of the average child at nine-and-a-half years old. Consultant psychologist Dr Tommy MacKay, who directed the programme, said a key reason for success was a decision to make it happen then a commitment to follow through. A lot of time and thought went into winning the hearts and minds of teachers and pupils so that both groups aimed higher. The programme begins with rhymes and alliteration in nurseries so that children develop an early awareness of sounds.

Children to read by six

Children to read by six – Tories
The Conservatives have set out plans which they say will ensure children can read by the age of six. Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said English assessments for six and seven year olds should be replaced with a standard reading test. But primary school head teachers have warned against formal tests for young children saying exams could put them off reading “for a very long time”.

Wow. I wished I’d known that changing assessements would enable 6 year olds to read! I never knew it was that easy!


Story Competition for Visually Impaired and dyslexic children

AltFormat Story Competition Banner

Sir Steve Redgrave Announces the 2008 dates for the AltFormat Story Competition for visually impaired and dyslexic students. Today Sir Steve Redgrave announces the dates for the 2008 AltFormat Story Competition.

This week’s timely announcement, during both Right to Read Week and Dyslexia Awareness Week, highlights the legal right of print impaired students to be able to access the curriculum and follows passionate debate over the provision of alternative format materials in UK schools. In a campaign which has already captured the attention of government ministers and the national media, AltFormat aims to raise awareness of the rights of children with visual or print impairment to alternative format learning materials.

Olympian champion Sir Redgrave, who is dyslexic and has a dyslexic daughter, comments: “Important research from the States tells us that if students with literacy problems are exposed to learning materials in the form of combined audio and text, their exam scores can increase by almost 40%. As the parent of a dyslexic daughter, the benefits of class materials in a format that suits children with reading impairments seems obvious. The AltFormat competition aims to raise awareness of how affective using alternative formats, such as large print, Braille or MP3, can be for students who have literacy difficulties or those who are visually impaired.

I am therefore delighted to announce that the 2008 AltFormat Story Competition will be officially launched on Tuesday 22nd January.” The 2008 competition also sees a new competition partner, Dyslexia Action, joining the already influential team of AltFormat campaigners, including the RNIB, British Dyslexia Association and SightSavers International. Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive Officer of Dyslexia Action, comments: “It follows that if you can not learn to read you can not read to learn. With the spotlight on the UK’s literacy levels it is imperative that all students have equal access to the curriculum so they are able to reach their full potential. We are therefore thrilled to be involved in this year’s AltFormat Story Competition. Many dyslexic children are creative and have some wonderful original stories to tell and we look forward to seeing these children participating in this exciting story writing competition.”

The 2007 AltFormat Story Competition was hugely successful, concluding in a House of Commons prize presentation that saw Jim Knight MP for schools, and other influential MPs, directly engaging with the winners, their parents, Sir Steve Redgrave and other leading campaigners from dyslexic and visual impairment charities. AltFormat Logo The 2008 competition will be officially launched on Tuesday 22nd January by Sir Steve Redgrave, with full competition details and prize information being available from the AltFormat campaign website The closing date for story entries will be Tuesday 18th March 2008. All entries will be judged on their creative merits and not their spelling and grammar! Hilery

A (nother) revolution in teaching promises the solution to dyslexia

 An article in today’ Independent discusses a ‘groundbreaking project which has extraordinary success in helping hundreds of dyslexic children… Springboard for Children, an education charity which now has the enthusiastic backing of the British Dyslexia Association, has achieved a 90% success rate in returning children with severe literacy problems to mainstream classrooms’.


From the Springboard site, it seems that the undoubted success of the venture depends on a coterie of volunteers supervised by ‘a core of qualified tutors’. The tuition is very likely to be much the same as that which any SfL teacher does – but more intense, long term and concentrated because of the use of free womanpower. The Article describes the use of Stile – a very well used and well established resource, for example. I think we all recognise that with more one to one support, those children ‘failing’ at reading would perform better. I have sympathy with the view that in the early years this sort of focus is helpful – as long as it does not dominate the entire school experience. If I were offered a bunch of enthusiastic and committed volunteers I could certainly use them most effectively!

From the site:

Once on the Springboard for Children programme, the children meet with their tutor twice weekly for a session of around 40 minutes and will receive a rich and varied ‘diet’ of tuition and support. Most receive one-to-one tuition, while others work in small groups…

Springboard uses a core of qualified literacy tutors, and a team of local volunteers which are given training and supervision to ensure each child referred to us receives a very high standard of help.

I was – perhaps unfairly – prejudiced when I read:


Based on Christian values every child, regardless of their faith or background, is treated as an individual, and encouraged and supported to achieve their full potential.

I’m wary of this statement, even as a card carrying Quaker. I hope, expect,  that all professionals treat pupils in such a way!

What do you think?




Feed the world and extend your vocabulary!

Go to and test your vocabulary – for every word you get correct 10 grains of rice are sent to the developing world.

I rarely play ‘computer games’ but find this compulsive – it awakens my brain! Here’s a section about it from an article in the Observer (11.11.07) launched on 7 October and a measly 830 grains of rice were donated to charity that day. By last week the daily amount had hit 77m. The game has even made it into the Washington Post, which asked: ‘What if just knowing what a word meant you could help feed hungry people around the world?’ With brands including American Express, Apple and Toshiba lapping up the advertising, maybe it can.

 Thanks to John Connell for the link.


The Reading/Phonics debate

I wonder what people thought of the recent Channel 4 programmes featuring synthetic phonics as The Solution to reading difficulties?

There is certainly a great deal of evidence to indicate that it can be a most effective method of teaching the mechanics of reading.

 I am, however, perturbed by the implication that there is only one model of literacy acquisition. Most early years and SfL teachers take a pragmatic and eclectic view: ‘If they can’t learn the way we teach then we must teach the way children learn’.  Of course we need to give whatever system the school embraces a good attempt but at some point – and this will be different for every individual – we should explore alternative methods. The most important thing is to engage the learners, to motivate them, to work to their strengths and to ensure they see a reason for reading.

And this is the second area of concern for me about the promotion of synthetic phonics.There is a danger that the mechanics of decoding supercede the real purpose of reading: ‘if we can read, we can live as many lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish’.

 I was distressed to watch the ‘failures’ spend so much of their working day concentrating (or not) on the very areas that they find most difficult. Yes, Benjamin Zephaniah did a wonderful job of turning some of them on to poetry. But placing a disproportionate emphasis on phonic skills could detract from other (perhaps more successful) learning across the whole curriculum.

 There is remote possibility, for example, that I could grasp the concepts of nuclear fission or the off-side rule (or even African drumming thanks to the wonderful Barry Smith! Though that looks increasingly unlikely in this lifetime). But even if I had the inclination, aren’t there more useful and exciting and relevant and motivating things I could work on? At some point we have to make a decision about the most appropriate use of the limited time we have in school. There may be a case to be made to shift the balance of learning to more fruitful areas and enable our inexperienced readers to access knowledge and demonstrate understanding without the barrier of print.

I should be curious to hear what others think.